10 space sim games that will keep you flying point-five past lightspeed

"Space sims" simulate the dream of space travel, so when you're not strafing your way across hostile space, you're exploring, seeking fresh new territories to discover, claim and exploit. They've been around since the early days of videogaming, but they probably reached their apex in popularity with the Wing Commander series of the 1990s ... along with X-Wing, TIE FighterFreespace, Independence War and various other incarnations.

Space sims had seemingly gone the way of adventure games, perceived by the big publishers as not profitable enough to pursue. But they're about to get a much-welcomed videogame resurgence, thanks to better graphics and computing power, as well as a burgeoning indie games industry and crowdfunding efforts from people who want to fly to space, gorrammit. In fact, almost all of the games listed here are from indie developers.

Of course, there's a downside to these many, many space sims flying out to your PC and/or PlayStation 4 in the near future (although most are in alpha or beta release and are playable now): There are too many of them. Most have trading, fighting and exploring as their raison d'etre, and "procedural generation" features prominently. So how does a prospective skywalker pick one game above the others?

With that in mind, we provided a roundup of the some of the new and upcoming space sims that will make you a master of the universe. 

The one gaping hole in the space gaming genre: Disney, where's my new X-Wing game? 

UPDATED: For a deeper dive into the space sims you love, check out our interview with Chris Roberts about Star Citizen.

  • Expand image Shrink image

    Elite: Dangerous

    Elite wasn't just the first 3D space game; it was one of the first games to use wireframe 3D graphics, period. It also featured trading amidst a procedurally generated galaxy. That was in 1984. It was double-plus good. 

    Fast forward to 2014. Still in its early beta stages, Elite: Dangerous has the same spirit as the original only, this time, it's wrapped in jaw-dropping immersive graphics, which include a heads-down, not up, display that has been optimized for those lucky enough to have an Oculus Rift.

    E:D is an expansive sandbox/shared universe with a complete model of the Milky Way, all 400 billion stars of it, including accurate representations of all the nearest stars. Human space will be a tiny part of it, and the rest unknown...until someone actually travels there.

    This space sim has an intriguing approach to single vs. multiplayer: You'll be able to play full-on multiplayer, co-op multiplayer with your friends, or single-player offline or online. I say "single player online" because, as the multiplayer game progresses, blockades will be erected, dignitaries will be assassinated, and systems will be annexed. The balance of power will shift from faction to faction based on players' actions in the multiplayer game. So, if you sync with the servers, you'll bring that state of affairs, and its economic impact, to your solo or co-op adventures, along with anything else developer Frontier drops in.

    Best for: Privateer/Freelancer fans, 2001 fans, and galactic explorers.

    Release date: 2014. Procedurally generated. Oculus Rift support. Single-player and multiplayer. PC and Mac.

  • Expand image Shrink image

    EVE: Valkyrie

    EVE Online is an MMO in which aggressive interpersonal actions are as much a part of the action as high-octane capitalism. CCP Games' offshoot, EVE: Valkyrie, is set in the same universe, but instead of perusing your market window, you're in the cockpit, shooting everything in your VR-enhanced vision. Valkyrie will support both Oculus Rift and the PS4's Project Morpheus virtual reality headset; as with Elite: Dangerousthe HUD elements are in the environment. This gives you the dizzying illusion of actually sitting in a pilot's seat. Now, when you shout "In your face!" to your enemies, you'll actually mean it.

    The game trailer below shows it all: Shooting, dodging, and putting the pedal to the high-flying metal. If you like OTT space combat, Valkyrie is the game for you.

    There's also more than a little Battlestar Galactica in this game. The first clue is the balletic dogfights. The second is the fact Katee "Starbuck" Sackhoff is voicing one of the characters. The third, and most telling, is the fact that, if you die as an elite Valkyrie pilot, your memories are uploaded into a fresh clone back at base. 

    Best for: EVE fans, Battlestar Galactica fans, and those who prefer Boba Fett to Han Solo. 

    Release date: TBA. Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus support. Multiplayer. PC and PlayStation 4.

  • Expand image Shrink image

    X Rebirth 2.0

    If playing in a huge economic simulation in space is your cup of almost-but-not-quite-entirely-unlike-tea, nothing does it quite like an X game. As in other space sims, players in X Rebirth 2.0 start off in an underpowered personal ship and can choose to fight or trade their way to greater things. But this game has a dynamic economy, so depending on the demand, you may be just the pilot to supply the, um, supply.

    You can certainly dogfight, but you can also build up vast trading fleets or huge factory complexes and build carriers and fighter wings to defend them. Resolutely single-player, the X games are (somewhat affectionately) nicknamed “EVE Offline.”

    Keeping the game solo has one major benefit: The X games have a solid plot. But you can ignore it in favor of doing your own thing, especially if "doing your own thing" means "building an empire like a boss."

    If you want to take it slowly, XR2 gives you the ability to choose your difficulty level by selecting different gamestarts. If you start as a mercenary, you get a leg up on weaponry; if you start as an empire builder, you get your own freakin' station. Depending on your choice of gamestart, you begin in a different sector.   

    So why is it called 2.0? X Rebirth came out in 2013 to a rocky reception due to multiple stability issues. However, developer Egosoft recently overhauled the game, which addressed most complaints. Kudos to Egosoft for not settling for a mediocre product.

    Best for: Those who think a game about building a Deathstar would be at least as fun as a game about destroying one.

    Release date: Already out. Single-player. PC only. 

  • Expand image Shrink image

    Star Citizen

    Chris Roberts, creator of classic space games Wing Commander, Privateer, Starlancer, and Freelancer, is returning to the genre he once dominated - and he's offering you a chance at citizenship if you're good enough to earn it. 

    Much like the X games, SC also intends to offer a fully simulated economy. So if a missile factory needs raw materials, the price of these materials will fluctuate based on availability and extenuating circumstances. A well-stocked freighter might earn you a pretty credit, while an ill-timed pirate attack will put a crimp in your plans for market domination. This could be very cool if SC can pull it off, but it's also tricky to model an economy completely. (Yes, the X games manage it, but they've been refining their model since 1999.)

    Different aspects of the gameplay will be released in different chunks ("modules"), so as of this current beta release, you can dogfight in a single-seater ship, but you can't yet fight in a large vessel. Future modules include FPS action, a planetside journey, and an MMO "style" persistent universe.   

    SC also offers a subscription service that, for $10/month or $20/month will give you special perks, not that they're short on ready cash. SC is the most well-funded of all the space sims, having shattered crowdfunding records, and it shows. It's one of the prettier games you'll see. It has its own freakin' YouTube talk showAnd developer Roberts Space Industries has not skimped on using tech writers: It has a 29-page pilot's guide for the dogfighting module alone.

    Best for: Players who like their boots spit-shined, even if they pay someone to do the spitting and shining.

    Release date: 2015. Procedural generation planned. Oculus Rift support. Storyline and missions. Single-player, multiplayer, and massive multiplayer. PC only.

  • Shrink image
  • Expand image Shrink image

    No Man's Sky

    This procedurally generated game won three Game Critics awards at 2014 E3. Featuring seamless atmosphere-to-space and space-to-atmosphere transitions with both space combat and planetscapes of visually impressive fauna and flora, the trailers do get your attention. But...

    But No Man's Sky, which was developed for the PlayStation 4, seems to have been developed for gamers who have never experienced a space sim before. It's entirely possible. Although the PlayStation and PS2 had several space sims, the only space sim game in the third generation of consoles were Iron Sky: Invasion and perhaps Starhawk

    It looks terrific, undoubtedly, but at this stage it's hard to tell what the game will actually be about. That's kind of the point, say developers Hello Games. They're building an emotional experience rather than a technical one. That news, plus the trailer, make me think No Man's Sky is less like Star Citizen and more like Flower or Journey. (This is not a criticism. Flower and Journey were brilliant games).

    With that in mind, one task includes the ability to discover and name planets, or become a xenobiologist and put your name to animals and plantlife. But Hello Games has promised dogfights, trading, and resource gathering, which are the building blocks of many a space sim game. Here's hoping for an out-of-this-world experience.

    Best for: PlayStation 4 owners, explorers

    Release date: TBD. Procedurally generated. Single-player and multiplayer. PlayStation 4. 

  • Expand image Shrink image

    Limit Theory 

    Limit Theory is a flying/trading/targeting-your-enemies-for-destruction game that isn't merely procedurally generated. As LT wrote on its Kickstarter page, "The algorithms behind the universe have been designed very carefully, such that they are mathematically-guaranteed to generate universes of infinite size, each and every time." But then there's also a "seed," a number that you input when you create a new game. If you enjoy that particular universe, you can share the seed - and therefore, the same universe - with a buddy.

    The game even uses procedural generation for its tech tree. It starts when you take the design of an existing item (or "blueprint" in LT vernacular), such as a weapon. Then, you "research" it to produce several new blueprints with different properties. It's kind of like generating a new gun in Borderlands based on an existing gun. You can do this multiple times on successive generations of blueprints to improve characteristics like range, or efficiency, or size; alas, if you improve one characteristic, another one has to degrade.

    Fans who've played the alpha version say they love the expansive universe where you can do what you want, when you want, and the game will respond unpredictably. There's no storyline, but you can join in on any of the fight-or-flight activities that unfold in front of your eyes. Oh, and if you want some music to kill your space enemies to, developer Josh Parnell has made some of the soundtrack available here.

    Best for: Those who want freedom...and guns.

    Release date: Mid 2014, so they say. Procedurally generated. Oculus Rift support. Single player. PC and Mac.

  • Expand image Shrink image

    Space Engineers 

    A game in alpha, but with frequent updates, Space Engineers is a more nuts-and-bolts version of a space game. It's not as lovely to look at as other games, but obviously this doesn't matter to its many fans; it's been selling like hot asteroids on Steam.

    Developer Keen Software House is obviously doing something right. Space Engineers is, as you might guess, as much about constructing and repairing spacecraft as flying them, Using welders, rotors, refineries, and solar panels is as integral to the gameplay as building your ship and keeping it flying.

    The developers recognize that Space Engineers players are likely to be tinkerers. Most PC games have mods, but KSH is making it easier on the modding community by releasing tutorials. Don't like the starfield? They'll show you how to make a new one

    The SE community is as important to the game as the game itself. For example, KSH hasn't established factions in Space Engineers, yet. That's okay. The players have already done it for them

    Best for: Engineers, builders, and people who play with LEGO.

    Release date: TBD. Single-player and multiplayer. PC.


  • Expand image Shrink image

    Kinetic Void

    More so than any other game here, Kinetic Void is about the ships. This sandbox space simulator lets you build and customize every aspect of your vessels, which you can build to mine ore or to weaponize for combat. Hell, even your trader ships need weapons, as the players who jumped in early via Steam are already trigger-happy. Make sure you set up your business in secured sector or the unfriendly factions will hit you from all sides before you can crawl to a warp gate. They'll even use drones to attack, because they hate you.

    Interestingly, developer Badland Studios doesn't intend on giving you a fleet to play with. No, you get one ship and one ship, only. That forces you to concentrate on polishing your ship until it gleams.

    With nice touches such as enemies who can team up with each other to take you down, Kinetic Void looks like the kind of sandbox you might want to play in. 

    Best for: Players who wants to fly a TIE Fighter and a Star Destroyer.

    Release date: No date. Procedurally generated universe. Single-player. PC and Mac.

  • Shrink image
  • Expand image Shrink image


    Do you like Minecraft? Do you want Minecraft to take you to space, but without the Minecraft mod? If the answer is yes, then there’s a space sim just for you.  

    Of all the games on this list, StarMade is the, um, least pleasing on the eye. With chunky textures and a low-rez star field, you may think that StarMade is just a few steps graphically above Asteroids. But as with Minecraft, there’s some astonishing complexity to be found: Ships have to be built from the skeleton up (don’t forgot the gravity) and need enough power to beat back space pirates. Gather resources for crafting, and eventually build the sweet pirate-killing ship of your dreams. Then fly to space, because that's what space is for.

    But the computer generates enemies based on your own ship design, so you can find yourself fighting...yourself. 

    One more stand-out feature: StarMade is free to play.

    Best for: Minecraft fans with big dreams.

    Release date: TBD. Single-player and multiplayer. PC and Mac.

  • Expand image Shrink image

    Kerbal Space Program

    Kerbal Space Program puts the “space" in space sim. Specifically, it puts you in charge of an honest-to-gods space program. Seriously. Your ships don't have warp drives and weapons; they have stages and liquid oxygen tanks.

    Starting from the basics, you'll figure out how to at least get off the ground, then master orbital insertion. Later, you'll attempt a manned "Mun" (moon) landing before setting your sights and probes on the outer Kerbal system. When you find yourself explaining the Oberth Effect to friends, you'll know you've become a KSP addict.

    There's no dogfighting, or even any guns in KSP - that's what mods are for. That's OK. There's something genuinely satisfying in launching a liquid propellant rocket out of atmo. Still, you'll grieve when your brave, endearing Kerbals die in horrific explosions (and there will be many) and cheer for them when they finally set foot on another stellar body. 

    It's a much slower, more thoughtful game, but of all the games here, it's also the most realistic. Plus, you will learn SCIENCE! Really. The tutorials have a science lesson at the end of each chapter, and NASA has even created missions for this perpetual alpha game. 

    Best for: SCIENCE! Also, for those who want to restart the Shuttle program, as well as fans of Elon Musk.

    Release date: TBD. Procedurally generated terrain. PC and Mac. 

1 of X
Previous Next

More from around the web